The year 2017, precisely on the 17th of December, takes the trophy home as the year bitcoin recorded its ATH (All Time High) at $19,783.21 on exchanges. The bitcoin decade has seen it grow from a seemingly worthless digital asset to being considered as a preferred world currency reserve, despite its reputation for being the most volatile asset worldwide, with prices yoyoing faster than you can blink. Gil Hildebrand will be sharing with us his story of getting attracted to the decentralized space for dreams of the crypto millions, but later channelling all that energy into utilizing his talents for creating blockchain solutions for businesses.
Having to grapple with complicated terms like nounce, hashing, nodes, QR Codes, cryptography, Merkle tree, etc., has been cited as discouraging for newbies looking to learn the ropes, which is why I asked Gil what he responds with when he gets asked the popular “what is blockchain?” question. “The worst thing you can do is start with the technical details. It’s like explaining a car by describing how an internal combustion engine works. Personally, I find it most effective to start by explaining Bitcoin first. I’ll start with a description of what cash is, then I’ll discuss digital payments and why it’s so important to have a digital version of cash. This usually gets quick buy-in to the concept of decentralization without requiring the use of such an abstract term. From there, it’s easy to describe Bitcoin as a technology to make direct value transfer possible. Lastly, I’ll explain blockchain by talking about how some clever minds discovered that if you had a way to do that with digital money, you could do it with any software. Without a man in the middle, you could avoid a lot of issues related to privacy, censorship, and efficiency.”
Bitcoin was little known in its humble early days of less than a $100. It shot into fame when exchanges began trading it at a price of thousands of dollars. It’s not hard to picture a surge in interest in this digital gold and an influx of enthusiasts. “I’ll admit that I got sucked in during the early stages of the 2017 bull run. I went crazy and even sold my BMW for Bitcoin (zero regrets). I came for the Lambos but I stayed for the revolution.” Whatever goes up, must come down, and now that the bubble is all but burst, interest has dwindled in the ongoing bear market. Nevertheless, it is still a blessing in disguise as those who have remained are the ones building solutions for a better world. “Once I realized there was a lot more to blockchain than a quick buck, I knew I had to start applying my talents to this breathtaking technology. I took an issue I knew well—B2B payments—and started iterating on a crypto invoicing product. The feedback was promising, and I started selling my crypto assets to fund development of Gilded. The goal is to make it all back (and more) while making it easier for people all over the world to collaborate and transfer value.”
“For several years before discovering crypto I did consulting work that wasn’t important to me. It was a paycheck without a purpose. That’s not the kind of life I want to live.”
Today, most homes have at least a form of computer, be it a foldable laptop, a holographic tablet or some smartphone. It is almost hard to imagine that these now ubiquitous technological gadgets were once rare. Gil was opportune to have early exposure to computers and coding. “My parents bought our first computer when I was 12. That would have been around 1996. At first, it was hard to get excited about it. The phrase ‘it’s a glorified word processor’ comes to mind. Then, about a year later, I went to a neighbour’s house where they had AOL. After listening in wonder to the seemingly alien sounds of a dialup modem, I heard my first ‘you’ve got mail!’ I was hooked. The next time an AOL CD arrived in the mail, I practically begged my parents to sign up for it. After that, I rarely ever left the computer. I created my first web page on Geocities, and a few months after turning 15 I had my first job working professionally as a coder. That was 20 years ago. Wow.”
One of the gifts so graciously given to humankind by Satoshi Nakamoto is the enablement of cross border transfers with so little fees and so fast processing time. Digitalization has already turned the world into a global village, fundamentally changing how things are done. Also affected is the future of work. And now, one can build a team of diverse talents sourced, literally, from the four corners of the world. “During my professional career, I’ve worked with many remote teams and international teams. I’ve seen first-hand how hard it can be to pay everybody. It doesn’t have to be this way. The internet democratized information. Let’s do the same thing for money.” Decentralised money is Gil’s favourite blockchain industry to work in.
But what role does blockchain play in all this? Gil says, “Without blockchain we are citizens of our countries. With blockchain we can become citizens of the world. To the extent that my life’s work is about empowering people to work, expanding that mission globally is so incredibly important.”
Dorothy (from the Wizard of Oz) was right, there is no place like home. Somehow, regardless of how far we wander, we always find our way back home. “I grew up in New Orleans—a city rich in culture. Although a place not exactly known for its technology leadership. Being in the first generation of people to truly live and work online, I was able to acquire skills, experience, and connections online that I was not able to get locally. By the time I graduated high school I was already working with computers professionally. I enrolled in college but quit during the first semester to pursue my career. A couple of years later, Hurricane Katrina washed away nearly everything I owned. I recovered quickly—moving to New York and helping to start Squidoo, a social publishing startup that we grew to 50 million visitors per month before it was acquired 9 years later. During this time I often worked remotely—first from NYC, then Colorado, even Italy. Eventually, I made my way back home to New Orleans, where I met my wife, also an entrepreneur.”
Responding to my question of if any of his family members were involved in the decentralized space, Gil said: “Hah. I think it’s fair to say that they’re still very much centralized.”
Homo Sapiens, according to Yuval Harari, was able to become the dominant creatures on earth due to their ability to collaborate on a grand scale, in hundreds and thousands. Regardless of whether for a noble cause or for selfish gain, humans worldwide have always worked together. Gil sheds some light on his philosophy about and experience working with others. “My most impactful projects have always revolved around helping people find work. My first startup, a hiring management SaaS, helped large companies hire more efficiently. At Squidoo we empowered work-at-home moms and thousands of other people all over the world earn a supplement income. At CollabFinder, we built a place for freelancers to connect around similar interests. Finally, at my latest startup Gilded Finance we are helping international teams pay each other faster and with less friction. My core conviction is that wealth doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. If I help you make more money, it doesn’t require me losing money in the process. Let’s break down barriers and make new connections. The internet changed everything. We’re global citizens now.”
“How can we make the world more open, inclusive, and tolerant, while minimizing the existential danger posed by the loss of privacy? I have no idea whether I’ll be able to make a dent in the world, but if I do, then I hope it’s in this area.”
Gil’s driving force, which propels him to give his all, is wanting “to empower people to do their best work. To make a connection. To pursue a passion. To live a life of prosperity without having to win the metaphorical lottery.”
So, while one Homo Sapiens (me!) sees cooking as a chore, our Blockleader sees it as an art which he takes on as a hobby. “When I was a kid my grandfather would always try to bribe me with junk food. I was more interested in a home cooked meal from my grandmother. She taught me how to cook, which to this day is one of my greatest passions. To me, it’s an art. I can lose myself momentarily. When I return I discover that I’ve created something valuable and nutritious for my fellow humans.”
Maisie Williams, you probably know her as Arya Stark, in a recent TEDx talk said, “don’t strive to be famous, strive to be talented.” How true this is for the blockchain and crypto space, although, it should probably be paraphrased, “don’t strive for the millions, strive to create solutions.” This is akin to Gil’s advice for newbies in the space. “If your knowledge or experience feels lacking, don’t worry. This industry is so new that we’re all still figuring it out. There’s plenty of time to dive in and develop mastery.”
Philanthropy goes beyond giving out that dollar you can afford to do without. It is an opportunity for a sober reflection where one gets to reflect on the past, present, and future. “At Squidoo, we worked with over 100 different charities. Together with the users of our platform, over our 9-year history, we donated millions of dollars to charity. There are times in life when you question what you are doing. Charity gives our actions more meaning and purpose. We don’t have a charity component baked into our current startup, but your question reminds me that we should.”
“I was very fortunate to have some incredibly smart and patient mentors early in my career. It made all the difference. Now I’m ready to pay it forward.”
Globalization has opened doors hitherto jealously guarded by a few, consequently releasing a floodgate of opportunities. Gil hopes his work leaves a legacy where these opportunities keep multiplying. “No matter who you are or where you are, I want to live in a world where your opportunities are limited only by your skills, passion, and drive.”
Who would’ve thought that someday, we would get to breed cats in our phones? Yet, sometime last year, the Ethereum network was nearly shut down by CryptoKitties activities. This definitely means something which Gil acknowledges. “Everyone loves Dogecoin. It gives me hope that technology and humanity can co-exist blissfully.”
Based in the US, Gil says the general uptake on blockchain and crypto in his country may be controversial. “But I am in awe at the attention, patience, and care with which regulators in the US are considering blockchain. Government is slow by design, and that’s a good thing. If we rushed to create new regulations it could limit innovation. In certain outposts of the country–Wyoming, Ohio, Colorado–we’re seeing very progressive legislation that is beginning to show how blockchain could help shape the government of the future.
According to Gil, people get it wrong when they try to limit themselves with the excuse that the space is still young. “People say the industry is so young, we should only be focused on infrastructure. It’s too early for end-user products, they say. That’s not how it works. Innovation comes from iteration, not leaps of faith. We need both infrastructure and end-user products today.”
Getting young people to adopt new technologies is usually captain obvious easy. Perhaps, one can attribute this to their bubbling energy and curious minds? Whatever the case, it’s a relief that the young folks of today show interest in blockchain with minimum efforts. Where the work is with onboarding the old folks. “When Facebook first launched, it was a place for college kids to post about what they were doing today. That made no sense to old people. Why not just call someone if you wanted them to know what you’re doing? A dozen years later, even my grandparents are now on Facebook. The technology has evolved to a point where the benefits are obvious. With technology, there’s ‘better because it’s new’ and ‘just better’. Blockchain technology needs to progress to the ‘just better’ stage before it stands a chance of being adopted by older folks.”